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Carter: Shakespeare's guide to Washington's scandals

The Capitol Dome silhouetted against the rising sun

The Capitol Dome silhouetted against the rising sun in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Getty Images

So which scandal is the worst? The Barack Obama administration's vulgar taste for investigating journalists? The Internal Revenue Service's belief that some taxpayers are more equal than others? The confusion and inconsistency over the attack in Benghazi, Libya? Or maybe the latest one, the seizure of phone records of tens of millions of innocents?

Politicians and pundits are quarreling over the answer. The dispute over which of these scandals are important - or even which deserve to be called scandals - has taken an ugly turn, as most Washington disputes do these days. But there's a way to work out a ranking of scandals, and even a proper definition of the term, without regard to political preference. To do so, let's consider where the word comes from.

Although we often forget the point, our modern word "scandal" has religious roots. Consider the Oxford English Dictionary's first definition: "Discredit to religion occasioned by the conduct of a religious person; conduct, on the part of a religious person, which brings discredit on religion." The word derives from the Latin root scandalum, meaning "cause of offence or stumbling."

The idea was that the reputation of a religion itself could be harmed by the conduct - the scandal - of its adherents. The OED's exemplars go back to the early 13th century. But the best place to look is the New Testament, where the Greek "skandalon" occurs 13 times. Although the word is variously translated - one theory is that the literal meaning is the stick that triggers a trap - its most famous rendering is as "a stumbling block." Consider, for example, this passage from Romans 14:13 (King James version): "Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way."

The metaphor is an unnecessary obstacle placed in the path of the would-be believer - placed there, often, by the faithful themselves. The sin, according to the early Christian writers, lies not with the person who stumbles, but with the person whose conduct creates the obstacle in the first place.

This is the sense in which King Henry uses the word in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part I: "O, what a scandal is it to our crown, / That two such noble peers as ye should jar!" He is referring to the bitter dispute between Gloucester and Winchester, whose competition for influence over the young king is spinning out of control. The "scandal" arises because their very public battle is reducing respect for the monarchy itself, and thereby weakening the king's own image and authority.

Viewed this way, what transforms my misconduct into scandal isn't the repercussions for me personally but its tendency to bring disrepute upon some entity or organization of which I am a part. For example, Ingrid Bergman's notorious affair in the late 1940s with the director Roberto Rossellini constituted a scandal only because Hollywood of the time was struggling to project a wholesome image in order to overcome a suspicion (fueled partly by anti-Semitism) that its work would tarnish America's reputation abroad. Today, by contrast, it is impossible to imagine the romantic or sexual dalliance of a film star bringing all Hollywood into disrepute.

Another scandal in this traditional sense is the flood of allegations surrounding Biogenesis, a Florida clinic that sold nutritional supplements. Anthony P. Bosch, the clinic's director, has reportedly told investigators from Major League Baseball that he supplied banned performance-enhancing substances to current players, some of them huge stars. Even if all the claims turn out to be true, the number of users will be a very small percentage of all players - but their misconduct nevertheless will bring disrepute upon the whole league.

Given all of this, which is the worst among our current crop of Washington scandals? I am tempted to choose the effort by the IRS to sort the citizens it serves into deserving good guys and undeserving bad guys - an effort, it now appears, not limited to just a few rogue agents far from Washington. Surely this unhappy enterprise serves as a great stumbling block to our national project. And the stumbling is seen to be rather widespread. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll concludes that some six out of 10 Americans believe that the IRS isn't the only government agency targeting conservatives.

The IRS scandal represents what the Jesuit scholar Johannes Ehrat, in his book "Power of Scandal: Semiotic and Pragmatic in Mass Media," calls a "scandal of destination": an abuse of authority for the sake of sending an implicit message subordinating another entity to your institutional goals. In this case, the scandal arose because institutional goals themselves became confused, as the IRS sought to enforce a regime less legal than political.

That's pretty terrible stuff, and pundits who try to downplay it seem to me to be missing the point: What happened at the IRS, no matter whose decision it was, has damaged the public image of government itself. That's what makes it a scandal.

Yet I think there is a scandal that is worse.

Let's return for a moment to Shakespeare's Henry VI, as he explains, in the same soliloquy, precisely why the bitterness between his lords creates a scandal to his crown: "Believe me, lords, my tender years can tell / Civil dissension is a viperous worm / That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth."

If we rank our scandals according to the long-term damage they are likely to do, then the worst is surely our ceaseless "civil dissension" - the inability of our leaders to enact even a pretense of getting along. Our politics themselves are our true "viperous worm." The unremitting nastiness of our parties toward each other, egged on by well-paid partisans on the sidelines, is the scandal that truly "gnaws at the bowels" of our republic.

If we don't repair that one, we'll never really be able to fix the others.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.


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